Editorial: Boiler switch puts heat on Mohawk

Last modified: Monday, February 15, 2016
*Archive Article*
The air certainly hasn’t cleared regarding a switch to wood pellet boilers at Mohawk Trail Regional School.

Both proponents of the proposal that would switch the building’s heating system from propane-powered boilers to a pellet-fired system and opponents have made their cases looking at both the local picture and a broader one. Each side also attempts to stake out environmental/green turf in order to win the argument.

And if the arguments sound familiar, it’s because they were all part of the fight over a proposed wood-burning power plant in Greenfield that was turned back a couple of years ago.

Begin with air quality.

Those arguing against the switch raise serious concerns about the impact that wood-pellet boilers will have on air quality and health. Glenn Ayers, who is a health agent for the Franklin County Regional Council of Governments, told the audience at a Mohawk subcommittee meeting that burning pellets was “a much more pollution-prone source of heat” than what the propane system is using now or, for that matter, oil. That will lead to exposing the school community — “a highly susceptible population” Ayers said — to particle pollution.

Making up these particles are a number of solids and liquids that can include dust, dirt, soot, smoke and drops of liquid. The burning of wood is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as the primary source for these particles. Forest fires, wood stoves and other wood-burning applications produce these particles.

We also know that the Environmental Protection Agency and states are fully aware of the downside to wood-fueled heat and energy sources. That’s why the federal and state agencies continue to examine and update existing regulations. And we know that the technology involved with wood-pellet boilers keeps evolving, making them more efficient in heating as well as reducing what’s put into the air.

If that isn’t the case, then why would wood-pellet boilers be such a significant part of the energy picture in Europe? Or why is the state of Vermont be switching out oil and propane heating systems for pellet or chip systems? Part of it, of course, is cost, since wood-pellet heating systems can offer a savings compared to fossil fuels. Like it or not, cost has to be a factor for a school system.

But proponents, including the Commonwealth of Massachusetts see the use of wood-pellet boilers as a renewable and local energy source. In fact, the state sees such promise in wood-pellet boilers, it has been offering incentives to schools to make the switch — within the Mohawk district, Sanderson Academy in Ashfield, Hawlemont School and Heath Elementary are already signed up.

Both sides of the issue raise points and concerns that deserve further investigation. But in the end, no matter what the decision, one side isn’t going to be happy.